Technology aids in the hunt for meth manufacturers - - Columbia, South Carolina |

Technology aids in the hunt for meth manufacturers

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Authorities say methamphetamine production is reaching epidemic levels in South Carolina with close to 500 labs found in the state this year alone.

But technology is giving the Drug Enforcement Agency some help in tracking down these amateur chemists who endanger themselves and all those around them by mixing up a dangerous high.

Fire and death haven't erased the traces of chemistry that still saturates the ground at in Goose Creek.

"As we walked up the stairway to get to the suspects' apartment, we had observed the elderly gentleman that had passed away," said an undercover agent. "Unfortunately, a 19-year-old and a 4-year-old were not able to escape and passed away."

The fire that destroyed an apartment building last summer and claimed three lives was perhaps the worst documented case of a meth lab explosion in the state. And yet, as long as meth is being made in hostile environments, agents say its only a matter of time before it happens again.

"I mean you can see what kind of damage it can cause if an accident were to happen," said the agent. "Holes in bottles and the bottle ruptures, it's a definite threat for us when we make entries into these building and residencies. You essentially have a blow torch of sorts right there in the building."

"A lot of these chemicals are odorless and tasteless, so burning of lungs, causing irreparable damage to the bronchi," said DEA agent Tim Davis. "Children who get the residual on their hands and they rub it into their mucous membranes like their eyes, mouth, nose."

Agents say meth users are the ones making the product, and the chemicals they use are traceable.

"I can just go on my laptop and look up a particular person and begin to get a snapshot of what their purchase history is as far as pseudoephedrine," said the agent. "No other drug really has that paperwork trail that we can follow, so it makes it a lot easier for us."

"Those medicines since the federal government passed a law back in 2006 called the Combat Meth Epidemic Act, and it required retailers that sold these products to maintain those products behind the counter and are required purchasers to show them government ID and to sign a paper log," said SLED Lt. Max Dorsey.

South Carolina lawmakers have considered making psuedophedrine prescription only, a strategy that has helped other states combat clandestine drug labs.

"Oregon has seen theirs go from 400 or 500 a year down to around 10. Mississippi has seen somewhere around a 70 or 80 percent reduction since they implemented their law," said Dorsey.

But even once agents have their suspects, the labs often leave lingering danger.

"The meth cooking process has been shown to contaminate drapes, curtains, carpets, and studies have shown those effects last many years," said Davis.

"Currently, there is no law in South Carolina that requires a property owner to meet a certain level of cleanliness when it comes to the removal of contaminants as a result of a meth lab," said Dorsey. "There are contaminants that go airborne, they will come to rest on flat surfaces, they'll get in the carpet, and we are aware of locations that have had independent tests done on them."

The undercover agent, who was on scene as the deadly Goose Creek fire unfolded, says the best way to prevent another tragedy like this one is to know what to look for.

"You look for that very strange chemical odor," said the agent. "We tell people that it kind of has that cat-urine type smell. It is a very awkward, strange chemical-type smell. Odd traffic, day and night, clutter, people that are burning trash, those are probably it.

"I could find a meth lab any day of the week, anywhere in my area or the state of South Carolina. It's the easiest drug to manufacture, and there's no shortage of ways to manufacture this drug."

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